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GRAY'S CONTRACT EXTENSION BODES WELL FOR BILLS' DEFENSE

When an impending free agent reaches the end of the NFL season without a contract extension, he usually is lured away to another team. That's the way the football business works. So the contract extension the Buffalo Bills signed with defensive coordinator Jerry Gray this week was an important move for the organization.

Gray's stock is rising in the NFL. If he had reached the New Year with his contract about to expire, it would have been a sticky situation. Chances are some team would have stolen him in the coaching musical chairs game that happens every January.

Gray's re-signing ensures continuity on the defensive side of the ball for the Bills. That's big. They probably will have enough things to worry about in March without overhauling the defense. Having returning players who are familiar with a sound scheme is a recipe for success. A revolving door is an invitation for failure.

The Bills' defensive scheme is sound. The Buffalo defense has gone from 21st to 15th to second under Gray's watch. As long as the Bills' defense posts decent numbers this year -- and it appears it will -- Gray's reputation leaguewide will continue to climb.

Accountability is an important trait for a coach. When Gray showed up, he was coaching a defense that was starting venerable names such as Kendrick Office, Kenyatta Wright and Raion Hill. Yet Gray never complained or made excuses. Even now with the offense struggling for a season and a half and counting, you don't hear Gray whining about lack of support. Once a coach starts making excuses, the players will jump on the bandwagon in a heartbeat.

Gray is building a solid resume that is likely to get him more head-coaching interviews eventually. He played for a great defensive mind in Fritz Shurmur with the Rams. He coached under Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams. Last year's association with Dick LeBeau added to his zone-blitzing expertise. LeBeau is one of the great defensive coaches of the past 25 years, and he helped the Bills. But it was Gray who was calling all the plays last year. Those high-profile associations are a factor in moving up the coaching ladder. Mike Mularkey had Bud Grant, Chuck Noll, Sam Wyche and Bill Cowher in his coaching pedigree when he was interviewing for a head job.

When Mularkey was hired, he never offered the defensive coordinator job to LeBeau. He never got to interview LeBeau, who left for Pittsburgh before meeting with the new Bills coach. Mularkey hit it off with Gray in his interview, and the extension is proof the two are comfortable with each other. That's a good message to send to the players, too, given the fact Gray was a holdover from Williams' staff. Aside from a few details, it's believed the framework of the deal was struck a month ago.

Gray has a solid group of players, and he continues to manufacture good production out of them. That bodes well for the future.

"It's been in the works for awhile," Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe said. "We appreciate all Jerry has done, and he deserves it. We look forward to having him here for a long time."

Eating up Ben

Several restaurants around Pittsburgh already have named sandwiches after rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Brentwood Express on Route 51 is selling the Ben Roethlis-burger, which comes with bacon, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing and cheddar and provolone cheeses. Then there's Peppi's on the North Side, which sells the Roethlisburger, a combination of beef, sausage, scrambled eggs and American cheese. It costs $7, matching his jersey number.

Just kick it

Coaches too often go for the two-point conversion too early in the second half. Carolina's John Fox blew the call in the Super Bowl, going for two when he was down, 21-16, with 12:39 left in the game. Then he went for two again and failed with 6:53 left, so the Panthers were up, 22-21, instead of 24-21. Had it played out in a normal fashion, Adam Vinatieri's kick with four seconds left would have sent the game into overtime, 31-31.

The Jets' Herm Edwards went for two trailing, 14-9, in the third quarter last week against San Francisco. He went for two again leading, 15-14, and failed again. If he had just kicked the two extra points, he would have had the 17-14 edge. Ultimately, the Jets won anyway, 22-14.

Just run it

Coaches getting too cute in short yardage is another legitimate pet peeve of fans. Take Jaguars coordinator Bill Musgrave last week in Kansas City. Trailing, 16-14, with a little over four minutes left, the Jags had second-and-1 at their own 33. They called two straight pass plays, and both fell incomplete. They went for it on fourth down because they were out of timeouts and threw another incomplete pass. Kansas City took over at the 33, failed to get a first down and missed a field-goal try. Then Byron Leftwich drove the Jags to the winning TD in the final two minutes.

Flutie's BoSox

Chargers third-string QB Doug Flutie jokingly suggested this week he should retire Saturday,then rejoin his club today so he could go watch Game One of the World Series. Flutie often wears Red Sox garb.

"I used to ride out there to the games when I was kid,'' said the former Natick, Mass., resident. "For $10 we could take (public transportation), get a bleacher ticket and have a couple of bucks left over."

Flutie doesn't drink alcohol but still celebrated Boston's pennant-clinching win in a big way. "I had a couple of extra soft drinks," he said, "and a brownie."

Peerless quiet

Ex-Bill Peerless Price so far has been slow to develop a connection with Michael Vick as the favorite receiver in Atlanta. Price caught a 50-yard pass last week but still has just 17 catches for 269 yards. He's tied for 35th in the NFC in receptions. Vick, adjusting to the West Coast offense, has been dumping frequently to tight end Alge Crumpler and fullback Justin Griffin. Still, one would think Vick would be going to Price more often.

Player to watch

Ravens DE Marques Douglas, No. 94, 6-foot-2, 290 pounds; free agent in 1999:

Douglass plays in the shadow of all the other Ravens' stars but has had excellent production as a starter the past year and a half. He was sixth on the Ravens with 89 tackles last year and is third with 33 this year. He's due to become a free agent and could be a value signing. It will be interesting to see if the Bills can run to the left, his side. Adalius Thomas is the outside backer behind him. Douglas is a graduate of Howard University and won the Ravens' Ed Block Courage Award last year. Said Bills line coach Jim McNally: "He's a short, squatty guy, very athletic and quick. He changes directions and gets off blocks well."

B-u-s-t

Few No. 1 picks are busting as much as Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, the top choice in 2003. Johnson has 20 carries in a year and a half and did not see his wish for a trade granted this week. So when he came to work Wednesday he found teammates had put yellow caution tape -- the kind seen at a crime or disaster scene -- all over his locker. Johnson was mad about the lack of a trade, humored by the joke.

"You can't do too much when you have an offensive coordinator who doesn't trust you and a head coach who never wanted you in the first place," Johnson told the Kansas City Star.

Onside kicks

The Eagles have an 11-1 record of recovering onside kicks under Andy Reid. He opened the second half last week with a successful one versus Carolina.

The Saints' sieve-like defense is allowing opposing QBs to complete 66.5 percent of their passes for an efficiency rating of 100.3.

Hard to believe, but the Pats-Jets game is the latest time in a season that two unbeaten teams have played since Oct. 28, 1973, when the Vikings and Rams matched 6-0 records. Way back in 1921, the Buffalo All-Americans (6-0) met the Akron Pros (7-0).

This is a good time for Chicago fans to recall the Bears traded down in the first round of the 1999 draft, passing up Daunte Culpepper to take Cade McNown.
e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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